Kids in Cyberspace

Within 3 years kids will study in 3D surround-screen Hologram classes. Watching TV likewise. Our TV rooms will  soon be like something out of Star Trek. Welcome to the ‘not too distant’ future of Science Faction.

YOU only have to be the parent of a child over the age of seven to know what I’m talking about: the vacant eyes so preoccupied by what’s on screen that they can’t focus on your face for more than a few seconds before being drawn back into the cyberworld.

As you talk, your little darling types or toggles. “Are you listening to me?” you ask, only to be told in a precocious tone: “Yeahhhh. I’m multitasking, Mum.”

It gets worse. By 16, girls no longer seem to have use of their tongues. “Text it to me, Mum,” quips my daughter, barely able to contain her contempt that she has to speak and breathe at the same time. I know one mother who got her daughter to the dinner table by posting the request on Facebook. It was so like social death for the girl that, like, she never failed to come to the table again. Technologies such as Twitter are alarmingly succinct. If you can’t say it in two lines, don’t bother. Luckily, I come from the dinosaur era of the telegram: “Come home (stop) Finish homework (stop) Or no mobile (stop).”

A study last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the US found that children from eight to 18 spend more than 7½ hours a day online and/or using electronic devices. And that doesn’t count the hour and a half that youths spend texting or talking on their mobiles. Because so many of them are multitasking – chatting on Facebook while playing games, surfing and texting – they pack an average of almost 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours. Some psychologists call this behaviour addiction; the Federal Government is investigating the effects of internet use on young Australians.

British scientist Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, believes that the pre-frontal cortex, which governs empathy and compassion, needs social nourishment in order to grow and develop synaptic connections. This starts with the mother’s gaze, the incredible stare of love that stimulates the brain. It is further developed by gazing at, and with, other people through smiles, sneers, flushes and changing voice tone, along with social skills such as reading. Greenfield even refers to pheromones, the smells we emit that give signals to others.

The danger with our technology-obsessed kids, Greenfield warns, is that they are no longer accustomed to the full range of messy and meaningful human interactions. Social technology is moulding children’s brains so that they are unable to empathise with others; in short, we’re breeding a generation of narcissists. A recent gag on TV sums this up. A comedian is selling a new device that discreetly projects text messages from his mobile onto other people’s foreheads. “Now you can read your texts or Tweets and your companion will think you are really interested in them!”

But before mums and dads are tempted to pull the plug on all this new technology, there’s a twist to the story. Enter Professor Dennis Del Favero, philosopher, artist and director of the iCinema Centre at the ¬University of NSW. With a team of computer scientists, engineers, filmmakers and artists, Del Favero has pioneered technology that promises to transform the interactive experience for the better. Instead of pushing us away from the world, it unites us with it.

The technology, which involves interactive multimedia, has attracted worldwide attention. It’s already achieved $7.1 million in sales, most recently to China as a mining industry educational tool; the Museum of Victoria is about to launch a version of it; three universities here and abroad have expressed strong interest; and Hollywood’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, inspected the facilities on a recent visit to Australia.

How to best explain it? It’s called AVIE – Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment – and it’s a computer program shown on a large circular screen using 12 projectors. You enter the space and 3D moving images play all around you, including above and below. It’s not too far removed from Star Trek’s science-fictional holodeck, a large room in which holographic images are projected from every angle to simulate an environment. And AVIE is fully interactive. The most recent project, Scenario, which was displayed at the Sydney Film Festival on its way to Moscow, operates on the basis of movement. Explains Del Favero: “As a member of the audience you walk into the space, and the space is watching you and tracking you. Characters are making decisions and changing the story according to your behaviour and your actions.”

I took my daughter to a special screening of several AVIE-produced projects at the UNSW iCinema and she found the experience compelling. We were instantly down a mine shaft in 3D. After we made a wrong choice there was an explosion, and we felt terrified and claustrophobic as we tried to navigate our way out of the rubble. Then we were in a restaurant, hearing the conversations, watching the faces and body language, and trying to solve a psychological mystery in an interactive film called Eavesdrop. We visited countries in speeding cars; and sat on top of an archaeological site in India. Here is a case of interactive technology filling a real social, educational need – and not just an entertainment distraction.

The potential applications are huge. This is the classroom of the not-too-distant future. Our kids will travel the world in 3D – and feel they are really there. They will go to a 3D refugee camp and be exposed to full facial expressions, grief and fear, prompting prefrontal cortex stimulation. They’ll go to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and walk up to paintings that will unfold before them, the virtual reality or “avatar” artists seeming so real they’ll want to talk to them. They will build virtual buildings with their hands and gaze up at the structures.

At this stage, many people share a large space together and they talk and engage with each other, which is all part of the socially enriching experience. But over time, as the technology develops further, it will shrink down so it can become part of a circular home TV/computer system that can fit over a small family, like the cone of silence in Get Smart.

This new world of 3D immersive environments will be much better for our children’s developing brains, offering contextual problem-solving and a deeper understanding of human and environmental challenges. Social media and technology are moving in ways that no one can predict. It’s an exhilarating ride and quite the opposite to the messages being offered by a few fearmongers. Or, in Twitter talk: @readers. Great hope. Kids brains to grow. New Technology cool. Plug in now.

The Weekend Australian

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12 Responses to Kids in Cyberspace

  1. mum of 3 28 July 2011 at 2:35 am #

    Fantastic article and no doubt these developments will be wonderful educationally, but I will argue about their benefit socially and, most importantly, emotionally. For sensitive souls being able to experience trauma is destructive and for the hard it just numbs them to the real consequences. Fast action in the brain alone leaves the body full of adrenalin with no physical outlet. Any parent knows too long on the gaming machines equals twitching and an odd inability to look you in the eye hours after it was turned off. Like everything in life I think these wonderful things should be used in moderation and never ever be a substitute for real life. Afterall the grass can always be real!

  2. Chris 27 July 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    I feel like a dinosaur writing this but, whilst I can see the appeal of the AVIE project, it makes me wonder whether this truly will be the opiate of the masses. Of course it sounds wonderful, it’s an amazing concept, but how will real life ever measure up to it? If the going gets tough (e.g. the mine explosion), never mind, move on to the next thing. People to interact with? Sure, but real life is messy, you can’t walk away from it so easily, so how is this teaching REAL interpersonal skills? It seems to me that this will lead to more superficiality in our relationships with others. I concede that new technology can open up new neural pathways and that is exciting but I wonder whether we’re missing something that is intrinsically human, our unpredicatability and what motivates us to act (often a mystery to ourselves, so difficult to simulate) and sheer chemistry that comes from face to face encounters. Could be a solution to the prison population though, hook them up to whatever weird fantasy rocks their boat. Have you seen ‘Vanilla Sky’?

  3. Joh 23 July 2011 at 12:53 am #

    We were early adopters in my household and I recall using msn and myspace msg to get my children downstairs for dinner…What’s the big deal?
    More effective than yelling upstairs…. or out on the street as it was in my day:)

    Now my children have left home and one’s living interstate, I would love them to spend a little more time attached to online life and staying in touch… but living on an island and being off sailing, working, lying on the beach etc, etc. Job was only available online.

    It happens every now and then and is an amazing gift. I don’t know how my grandmother survived my father’s absences … off surfing for summers etc….

    I don’t know, but with a positive focus, and using the internet as the tool rather than the master, it can be incredibly freeing and facilitate learning and connection.

  4. Ruth Ostrow 22 July 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    I remember my nana and her cakes and the smells and sites of her garden. It was big and full of bushes and I’d go looking for insects with my bug catcher; and make berry wine from the logenberries in her trees. I don’t think cyberspace can replace such treasures. But I guess it is full of new ones. And they will be just as nostalgic about their early years on Facebook.

  5. Ruth Ostrow 22 July 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    Ditto I love it now that I understand it from my uni studies in Multi Media. But I do also wish these kids had a bit more interactive time, even with each other. The sterility of computer screens has always worried me. ALthough I did see an invention the other day where they’ve simulated lips which can kiss you via some device operated by someone in cyberspace. Now that is weird science.

  6. Ruth Ostrow 22 July 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    Yes Stenman I do talk about this is the feature. Not the left right brain so much but the brilliant neuroscience of modern technology when used as a teaching modality for adults and kids. It stimulates new neuro-pathways and grows parts of the brain that were dormant. Real ‘Brain Plasticity’ that has made psychiatrist and best selling author Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself) very vocal on this topic.

  7. Ruth Ostrow 22 July 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    Ha Ha know the scenario well. I try to explain that in my era phones were connected to the wall. Forget trying to explain what a typewriter was. But because I’ve gone back to uni studying multi media I do have some understanding of this brave new world, and yes as Meredith says it is exciting.

  8. Shelly 22 July 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    I do have to laugh, my teenage daughter is exactly the same… my fat fingers are in their 50s. I have arthritis and yet I am forced to text her things to get her to respond. I say “I am from the era of the telephone. Ring me.” Maybe if I text that to her she’ll respond.

  9. Stenman 22 July 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Girls do you want a boys point of view? I think that there are many practical reasons to welcome these advanced changes. There are neurological advances that can be made by triggering various new parts of the brain. New technology can spark right and left brain connection at the same time. We will start learning in multi dimensions and growing part of the 90- percent of our brain we never use.

  10. Meredith 22 July 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    Haven’t blogged on this site for a few weeks but this one has sparked my interest. I love what’s happening with social media I find it really exciting and can really understand why kids find it intriguing. Those resisting change just don’t know how awesome new media can be. You can have grass and dogs running in parks any day. I wish my childhood was filled with the wonderous images and videos and information and beauty that I find being on line; and the friendship and community of social media. Bring it ON!

  11. Andrea Cobb 22 July 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    Hi Ruth I think Soshana said exactly the thing I was thinking. You make it sound like it is so fantastic. Well I wait to read your story tomorrow because I will a lot of convincing that this new world of holographic images beats reality or good old fashioned teaching.

  12. shoshana 22 July 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    Ruth you’ve nailed it again. I don’t care what new inventions will give our kids fabulous cyber brains. I remember growing up in grass and with animals around me, chasing dogs, and playing in the trees. What are these children to become so removed from the natural world. They will become giant brains that’s what. Talk about science fiction they will soon need no legs!

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